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‘These Cases Are Worth Fighting For’

January 03, 2024

2023 PI Week Dinner - Agnieszka Fryszman Honorary Fellow
2023 PI Week Dinner - Agnieszka Fryszman Honorary Fellow

An interview with Agnieszka Fryszman, chair of the Human Rights practice at Cohen Milstein, pictured above delivering the keynote speech during Public Interest Week.

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School was honored to host Agnieszka Fryszman, chair of the Human Rights practice at Cohen Milstein, as the Honorary Fellow for Public Interest Week.

This annual week-long program hosted by the Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC) engages local, national, and international experts in rich discussions with Penn Carey Law faculty and students on today’s most urgent social justice and human rights issues.

As Honorary Fellow, Fryszman delivered a keynote address at the week’s culminating event. She also met with small groups of students, providing Penn Carey Law students with the opportunity to engage with one of the world’s preeminent human rights lawyers.

During her visit, we had the privilege of interviewing Fryszman about her work as a renowned human rights litigator, the inflection points that propelled her career forward, and how she sustains her career.

Q: When you look back on your career up to this point, were there any inflection points that changed your trajectory or inspired you to take an action you hadn’t considered until that moment?

Fryszman: So, in some ways, no, because I always wanted to do human rights law. I was a huge nerd as a kid. Everybody else wanted to be a firefighter or a ballerina, and I always drew myself surrounded by books. I majored in international relations in college, but then my life took a whole lot of twists and turns. I worked on political campaigns. I worked on the Hill and went to law school relatively late. I started out as an antitrust lawyer.

And, in some ways, yes, there were inflection points. When I was an antitrust lawyer, I volunteered to work on this case involving victims of the Holocaust. After we settled those cases, I persuaded the firm to invest the cost recovery and to start a practice devoted to human rights. So, I guess that case was an inflection point.

2023 PI Week - Agnieszka Fryszman, Honorary Fellow Fryszman (second from left) meeting with Emily R. Sutcliffe, Assistant Dean for Public Interest and Executive Director of TPIC, and Penn Carey Law students

Q: When you volunteered for that case, did you have any inkling that this would grow into a new practice and a focus of the rest of your career?

Fryszman: No. I volunteered for a series of things that grew together to be what my career is today. It’s really important for young lawyers to volunteer for opportunities. That is often where my career took leaps and leaps and bounds forward.

I volunteered to work on that first case, and then we got another case on behalf of the Comfort women against the government of Japan. My colleagues on that case were interested in bringing human trafficking and forced labor litigation. One of them—Martina Vandenberg—founded the Human Trafficking Legal Center. I argued that case with Jenny Martinez, who is now the Provost at Stanford.

Then I volunteered for Alexander v. Oklahoma, a case representing the victims of the Tulsa race riot of 1921. I learned an enormous amount from incredibly talented lawyers: Charles Ogletree, Johnnie Cochran, and Michele Roberts. At some point, I started to pick my own cases and litigate and staff them. Twenty-five years later, I’m still at it.

Q: What do you know now about being a lawyer and chairing the human rights practice, about litigating on behalf of victims and survivors of human rights violations, that you wish you knew as a student?

Fryszman: I think that if I knew then when I know now, I wouldn’t have had the success that I did. A lot of it came from overconfidence, and a lot of it was that I wasn’t deterred by the obstacles and risks. I was less risk averse, and that was probably a good thing. You can’t succeed if you’re not willing to take risks.

Q: Can you share an example of a risk that you took that could have gone poorly but didn’t?

Fryszman: If you focus on all the risks, all the reasons you can lose, you’re never going to get anywhere.

For example, when I represented Paul Rusesabagina, one of the challenges was serving the generals and ministers who were responsible for Mr. Rusesabagina’s kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture. One of the ministers was in England, and under the Hague Convention, you can serve by mail. So, we did just that. Of course, it was returned to us, but the family had opened it and written “send this back!” before mailing it back to us. The court found that the minister had evaded service, and if we hadn’t taken that commonsense step, we would not have been granted the immunity ruling.

There are always bigger, more complex examples: how are you going to get jurisdiction? How are you going to prove this? How are you going to do that? If you believe in a case, I think you can make it work. Often, all those obstacles you anticipate don’t materialize. If you don’t try, you’re not going to win.

Q: What sustains you and your work?

Fryszman: People’s lives really are changed with this work. Sure, it’s great to make new law. I recently had two big precedent-setting sovereign immunity cases. The more meaningful thing, for me, is how people’s lives and communities have changed.

That’s why I like representing people who have been wronged. You’re representing people and whole communities that were victims of human trafficking and forced labor, as well as ended up destitute and don’t have enough food. It’s great to win those cases and send that money back to the families and community so that their kids can go to school and have enough to eat; people have jobs and are happy.

I went back to Nepal and visited some of our old clients. One of my clients bought a sock factory and gave me this big bag of socks. When I first met him, they were destitute. We went to depositions where he was grilled by the defense counsel. But he persevered, and we went to court and got a settlement. His factory, today, employs 14 people, and his son is studying computer science. So, the whole trajectory of that family’s life has changed for the better.

Q: Are there any emerging shifts in human rights lawyering that you think will change the trajectory of that work? If so, how might law students prepare themselves to respond to these?

Fryszman: One of the emerging shifts I’m seeing is more extraterritorial capacity and more rule of law capacity.

Recently in the United States, there has been a shift where our highest courts are saying that U.S. laws are not extraterritorial. Other countries are going in a different direction and are permitting these suits. For example, there are currently great cases in England, Korea, Spain, and France that hold parent companies responsible for actions of their subsidiaries in other countries.

Lawyers will need to be more agile to respond to this kind of shift. For example, we use foreign law in a lot of our cases: Iraqi law, Indonesian law, and international law in our own courts. Lawyers will need to look to other sources of law and be creative in both how they bring cases and how they work with lawyers in other countries and in other legal systems.

Q: What advice would you give to new lawyers who are starting their careers in human rights law?

Fryszman: A really important thing to keep in mind is that it’s the client who is taking all the risk. You’ll go on to your next case, and you’ll be at your house in America, safe and sound with your laptop. But, the person is taking all the risk—perhaps putting their life at risk—to be your client. You’re representing them. You’re not the savior; it’s their case. You’re representing that person and their goals, and you need to be faithful to that.

Secondly, just look for opportunities where you can grow your skills and become more effective by learning from people who are good at what they do. Find those people and learn from them. You’ll often find that, a lot of time, people are really, really generous. Don’t be shy. If someone really fantastic and brilliant is doing an important oral argument, go watch how they prepare for court, how they answer questions, and how they practice.

Finally, I think the last advice is to just try. There’s always going to be someone telling you why you can’t do something or why there’s no jurisdiction. But if you don’t try, you’re never going to succeed. It’s worth trying; these cases are worth fighting for.

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